Eulogy for the Unborn Teacher of Torah
By Rabbi Chanoch Levine
When he was a young student in the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Yaakov Katz (later Rosh Kollel of Yeshivat HaKotel) attended the funeral of one of Israel’s great talmidei chachomim and was moved to tears. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, zt”l, was standing nearby. He approached the weeping student and told him “Don’t cry about a tombstone that says “Po nitman harav, hagaon, hatzaddik.” (“Here is buried the rabbi, the Torah genius, the righteous…”) Pointing to the heart of the young Yaakov Katz he continued, “Cry because here is buried harav, hagaon, hatzaddik!”
The episode left a powerful impression on Rabbi Katz and today he tries to teach his students that the potential within us can only be realized if we care enough to cry about it.
In my opinion, Orthodox parents of our generation not only do not cry for the buried potential of their children to be rabbonim, geonim and tzaddikim, but they actively bury this potential by discouraging any tendencies their children may have in that direction. The average day school parents discussing future careers with their children will happily entertain possibilities from accountant to zoologist without ever mentioning the possibilities of maggid shiur, posek, or rav. Sometimes, a child impressed by the rabbi of his shul or by one of his Jewish studies teachers will mention a desire to follow in his footsteps. Parents and relatives immediately try to correct these tendencies. “Learning Torah is fine,” they say, “but don’t make a career out of it. Be like your Uncle Marvin. He’s a lawyer and he gives a shiur in shul. He knows as much as any rabbi, but he makes a nice living. Besides, who supports all of the shuls and yeshivos, not to mention the rabbis? It’s the people with good jobs who keep the community going.”
Often, behind these expressions of concern lies the unspoken fear that years of intensive Torah study in the yeshiva environment will transform the child and turn him into a strange, black-garbed creature distant from, or even hostile towards, the lifestyle of family and community.
An opportunity for “rebellion” for many day school students comes at the end of high school. After taking the SAT’s, reading college catalogues, visiting schools and choosing a college, many day school graduates defer college for a year and attend a yeshiva in Israel. There, they find an environment where talmidei chachomim are the “heroes” and dissemination of Torah is viewed as the optimum future for the most gifted individuals. They discover that not all talmidei chachomim grew up in Bnei Brak or Lakewood. Young men from backgrounds similar to their own have gone on to teach, write sefarim and serve as rabbonim and dayanim. They realize that in the flurry of college catalogues and career fairs, an entire world that is the traditional inheritance and obligation of the Torah student has been relegated to the sidelines.
Suddenly the year of learning, which last June seemed like a tremendous amount of time to devote to “just one subject”, appears almost insignificant compared to the depth of the Torah and their ever-deepening thirst to explore it. Jerusalem’s bookstores are filled with eighteen-year-old day school graduates struggling with boxed sets of Rishonim and Acharonim whom they hadn’t even heard of a few months ago.
The phone bills mount up as the battle for a second year begins. Some students win, but only after parents extract solemn promises that after one more year in yeshiva, their child will continue on to a well-rounded university education and a proper profession. Upon their return, even those students who manage to combine university and yeshiva are often allowed to go only as far as getting semicha with instructions to head straight to a “real” career afterwards.
What have we buried? The prodigy who impressed his rebbe with his quick grasp of material and ability to be mechadesh (offer new insights) is writing his thesis in math. The chiddushim and shiurim that he would have contributed to the mesorah are buried. The young man who stayed up late learning shailos u’tshuvos now stays up past midnight as a first year attorney in a corporate law firm. The posek and dayan he might have been is long interred. Elementary and high school rebbeim, insightful rabbis and outreach experts who “might have been” fill the accounting firms, medical offices and high tech labs. Meanwhile, intermarriage and assimilation run rampant. Reform and Conservative seminaries trumpet the increasing number of “rabbis’ they are turning out. Churches send their young people on missions to convert Jews worldwide.
What of those who choose to continue in kollelim or serve as rabbis? What of the men and women who forfeit potential lucrative careers to devote themselves to teaching the next generation of Jewish children? They often have to deal with the pain and disappointment of parents who feel that their children “threw away” the care and education that they received. They must listen to a barrage of stories about penniless teachers and jobless rabbis who need to change fields.
The struggling couple is offered parental support – on condition of enrollment in law school or business school. Who knows how much more they would achieve with the encouragement of those they love? The same families who have admirably devoted themselves to keeping Torah alive in America and bringing up observant children must realize that encouragement of potential mechanchim and mechanchos is essential to those goals.
I realize that parents want their children to be financially secure and happy. To ask a parent to encourage his or her child to walk a path that seems to lead to difficulty is not easy. But we should take our cue from the Israeli army. Their popular expression, “Hatovim latayis!” (“Send the best to flight school!”) means that Israeli parents must encourage their children to forsake other careers and instead become pilots or special forces troops to ensure the survival of the country. The reality of the massive Arab armies on their borders makes the decision clear.
As observant Jews today, we must accept the fact that apathy and assimilation threaten Jewish survival more than missiles. The purpose of Jewish survival is to insure that Torah life thrives. This vitality depends on the training of talented, motivated, well-trained Torah “professionals.”
Any nation in the world can produce experts in secular areas, but only Am Yisroel can produce disseminators of Torah.
Please understand, I do not suggest that those unsuited to spread Torah be forced into it. An unfit teacher does more harm than good. Similarly, no one says that doctors and lawyers cannot be tzaddikim or talmidei chachomim. This article is but a plea that the goal of disseminating Torah be encouraged and nurtured from the cradle so that we will not lose those capable individuals whom we so desperately need.
Who am I? One of those nearly buried. Despite growing up in a family where Torah was valued and stressed, I never considered a life of teaching Torah or rabbonus during my years in elementary or high school. After yeshiva in Israel, in college, and in the workforce, my predilection for teaching Torah kept resurfacing only to be buried by those concerned for my welfare. Now nearly thirty, married and a father, I am determined to try to realize my potential as a Jewish educator. As I prepare to move from my office cubicle to a shtender, I do worry about the security and comfort of my family.
However, my wife and I believe that the happiness of involvement in what we feel is “life or death” for the Jewish nation is far preferable to a life of regretting what we could have done, but didn’t. Of course, I do have the luxury of a “fallback” profession, should my foray into Jewish education fail. Yet many couples I know who are in even more difficult situations have decided that the discomfort of an old car or cheaper furniture becomes insignificant compared to the accomplishment of inspiring a student who has been “turned off” to Judaism.
To those who discourage aspiring marbitzei Torah, know that we appreciate your concern and recognize the risks. Please, channel your energy into support for our institutions and the battle for better conditions for our teachers and rabbis. Treat them as the heroes that they are. Above all, let us return to the world of parents who for generations sang to their children that “Torah is de beste s’chora” – there is no greater “business” than Torah.